Examination of witnesses (Questions 640
THURSDAY 11 MARCH 1999
and RT HON
640. From both Health and MAFF?
(Mr Rooker) Yes. There will be no food standards
research. Obviously on the margin there is always going to be
collaborative work in terms sometimes of animal health, for example,
but the ones that can be defined, in effect ring-fencedwhich
is not the phrase that we would use in other respects of the Billthe
ones that we can define as ring-fenced as food standards and safety,
that budget will be handed over to the Agency. In broad terms
we said £25 million. The fact that MAFF suffered a cut in
its research programme might mean it is £23 million or something
of that order, but that will be the budget of the Agency to start
with and it will have total freedom about how it spends that budget,
total. It will not receive instructions; it will decide how it
spends that budget. As for the research projects, some will come
to an end fairly quickly, others, as I say, are on three years,
very tight contracts. We only do research. We have no blue skies
research. All our research is policy-driven. All of it is out
to tender. Every single bit of MAFF food research goes out to
tender. None of it is automatically placed in-house with our own
641. So if the budget is £23 or £25
million and it is not being directed what the research is, what
would the view be of ministers if it chose then to spend substantial
amounts of its research budget on the effects of salt intake on
diet or fat intake on diet or sugar intake on diet or nutritional
elements rather than on straight microbiological research?
(Mr Rooker) We could send you a paper, I have
no doubt, but it would be a bit long, of the current food standards/safety
research projects that are on. Some are quite small, some are
quite large. The fact is that at any one time in MAFF there are
2,000 projects on-going. We receive in MAFF 800 research papers
a year, three every day, from our research programme but that
is the total MAFF research programme. So you can see that a substantial
percentage of that is on food, but they are policy-driven.
642. What I am saying to you, Minister,
is that we seem to be a bit fudgy about nutrition and where that
is actually sitting in the Bill.
(Mr Rooker) No, we are not.
643. How would you feel if the response
was that the Food Standards Agency of its own volition chose to
put the majority of its research budget into elements that were
to do with nutrition and health promotion?
(Mr Rooker) I can put it this way. We have a reason
for every research project. Nobody gets a bright idea. There has
to be a reason. It is policy-driven. Policy divisions control
most of MAFF's budget. The Chief Scientist is left with only £8
million out of £130 million. It is policy-driven for a reason.
The nutritional aspects of what MAFF does now which goes into
the Agencyyou have to forget there will not be any in the
futurealready take place now. They will go over, so the
nutritional slot of the 20 segments of nutrition that are exclusive
to the Agency, some of those are within MAFF at the present time
and they will go over. If research in those policy areas is going
to be undertaken within the overall research budget, then it will
take place, but there will be a mechanism for deciding. It will
not be left to an individual person.
644. It will not be directed by Ministers?
(Mr Rooker) No, it will not.
645. So when this budget is set up and we
have day one of the Food Standards Agency, how much of its hands
will be tied by its taking across research from MAFF that is coming
across and it therefore cannot initiate or commission its own
(Mr Rooker) It obviously depends upon the date
of vesting day. The budget is there, the programmes are under
way. We are not going to abandon research projects where we have
entered into contracts following competition.
646. But how much of the £25 million
will be tied up? All of it?
(Mr Rooker) Most of the projects are, as I say,
on a three-year cycle. It is not specific; there are some that
take longer, some are shorter, but on average a three-year cycle.
Within the first year a third of the projects will finish and,
therefore, that budget will be available.
(Tessa Jowell) May I come back to your earlier
point about the Agency's freedom to determine what kind of research
it commissions, because it will be free to commission the research
that it sees fit to commission. Again I think there is a very
important point in your question about the nature of the relationship
between the Agency and the Department of Health because, as a
Health Minister, I think if the Agency decided that in the first
year it had substantial leeway, that it was suddenly going to
commission or to commit all its research budget on a study of
the link between salt and broader aspects of health, I would expect
the Agency to explain why they saw that research as being necessary.
I would also expect them to take account of other research in
the field that was being conducted, research that was being conducted
by the Department of Health. If this were simply seen as an assertion
of the Agency's independence and in a sense was being used for
that purpose rather than for the substantial importance of understanding
more about what is an important aspect of nutrition, then I think
you would want some pretty frank discussion about whether or not
this was a real priority when our state of understanding about
transmission of E. Coli and other aspects of microbiological
risks to food safety are undeveloped. They would have to have
a good case for going for a priority which may seem at the margin
rather than at the centre of their concerns.
647. May I ask how you see the research
is going to be done because, of course, we have the closure of
(Mr Rooker) With respect, we have not got the
closure of Norwich, we have got the transfer of Norwich to York
so that the Central Science Laboratory is on one site. I do not
want a hare running that we are closing down a food science laboratory.
We are not, we are moving it. Sorry about that but we have to
get the facts right.
Chairman: May I thank
the Minister for that clarification.
648. In that case, do you see the FSA as
having its laboratories or do you see it as just commissioning
across the place or using York?
(Mr Rooker) It will be free to place its research
where it wishes. As I have said, all the MAFF food-related research
at the present time is put out to tender. None of it is directed
to MAFF laboratories, whether it is the Central Science Laboratory,
the Veterinary Laboratory or any of the others. So it is all put
out to tender to get the best value.
649. But we are talking about an independent
Food Standards Agency?
(Mr Rooker) Yes, of course we are.
650. We are not talking about MAFF and the
problems that we have had in the past.
(Mr Rooker) We have not had any problems with
the research, with respect, but the ethos of putting research
work out to tender is a matter, I think, of good public administration.
The Food Standards Agency will not own a laboratory and, therefore,
it can choose, it will have to choose, how it places its research
contracts. I would imagine under the rules of normal government
tendering it will probably use tendering. I cannot say but the
fact is that some of that research may end up in MAFF laboratories,
some of it may not. There are lots of laboratories in this country
dealing with food research that are in the public sector, the
private sector and some between the two, and they do valuable
work at the frontiers of science and technology. I would imagine
the Food Agency would want to use the best value and the best
science and the best laboratories it can for its research work.
651. May I ask both of you what you consider
to be the scope. You are not giving direction but what would you
feel would be the scope of the kind of research that the FSA,
maybe in its third year when it is a bit freed of previous commitments,
should be going into, the range?
(Mr Rooker) It depends on the policy objectives
at that time of the Agency. Do not forget, the Agency is there
to give policy advice to government as well and, therefore, occasionally
new processes may come on stream, new techniques, new foods. It
is that kind of issue sometimes that drives the policy people
to say, "We had better commission some research on this."
Where problems might be highlighted we will shift the research
budget to do extra work, as we did over, if you like, the tin
in the tomatoes rather than the tomatoes in the tin which came
out of issues like that. So that research has to be paid for.
For example a new area, one that has come out of our own work
is looking at packaging. It may be a surprise that in theory most
of us will say that recycling is a good idea. I have learned that
it is not a good idea per se because recycling paper, board
and materials which have been used for all kinds of products in
the past and which end up in new packaging to package food can
be a bit tricky because some of the chemicals that were around
for the original purpose of that packaging are a bit dodgy for
food. Now, these are areas that we look at now because there is
a policy issue as to whether we ought to have some research so
that we can make sure any policy changes or the conduct of the
policy is based on sound science and not based on a hunch, so
I cannot second-guess what will be happening in three years any
more than anybody else can.
652. Can I ask two final questions. One
is that obviously since information, packaging and labelling on
packaging is crucial for us to do something about raising confidence
and standards, would you think it was acceptable that research
should be spent on the effectiveness of publicity, information,
the effectiveness of labelling or are we going to end up with
a bottle of water that has a label attached to it like a booklet?
(Tessa Jowell) I think that it is very important
that as the Agency develops, new approaches to labelling, either
with the food manufacturers or independently, the impact and usefulness
of that information is assessed systematically and I think I made
this point when we last gave evidence, that it is of great concern
to me that millions and millions of pounds are spent on what are
broadly described as health promotion campaigns and usually the
publication of quite expensive leaflets and booklets which are
then launched on the public and we simply do not know whether
they have had any impact on improving levels of understanding
or changing behaviour. I would hope that it would be an absolute
discipline of the Food Standards Agency that when they embark
on this kind of work, they also invest money in making judgments
about its effectiveness.
653. Obviously there will be some residual
responsibilities left with MAFF. What influence will the FSA have
over MAFF or the research that is carried out, for instance, on
(Mr Rooker) In respect of the research, as I have
said, going back on the figures, MAFF's total budget is about
£130 million for research and that obviously includes the
environment, animal health, welfare, flood defences, coastal protection
as well as food safety and hygiene, and I am sure I have obviously
missed out some other crucial area, horticultural research, plant
health. These are all areas, as I say, for which at any one time
some 2,000 projects are being funded. I would imagine in the course
of time that there will be research projects that the Food Standards
Agency wants to know about or wants to influence or indeed have
collaborative arrangements with other agencies over, particularly
in respect of either work on the farm or animal health and those
issues. One cannot say at the moment and this is why in seeking
to ring-fence the budget to hand over that it is not precise,
black and white, but at the edges there will be, I am sure, some
projects where it is, if you like, thought to be more animal health
than food and I think that is important, but the idea that the
Agency is going to be sort of stand-alone, not talk to anyone,
not have any arrangements with other people and with other institutions
I do not think is the case. It is not possible to define it, I
think, in the way you are asking the question at the present time
because we are not looking for a revolution in the arrangements,
as it were, to tear it up and start on a clean sheet simply because
of the amount of work that is already in train, but I would imagine
there would be quite substantial collaboration.
654. It is a rather unfair balance of the
research budget, is it not, that MAFF will be left with a £100
million research budget by the time you have taken out the £19
(Mr Rooker) Yes, so?
655. So we are looking at a £100 million
research budget for MAFF for its responsibility for fisheries
and farm producers, but we are only going to put £19 million
into virtually the rest of the food chain.
(Mr Rooker) Well, speaking from memory, there
is probably the best part of £25 million on the environment
and I do not consider that to be a waste in the pejorative way
that you seek to put it.
656. I am just saying it is an uneven distribution
of the resources.
(Mr Rooker) Then there is coastal defences, the
money we are putting into crop protection, improving yields. You
cannot make a distinction like that because you are not comparing
like with like.
657. So how much of the MAFF budget will
be on research that is to do with something in the food chain
and which is not coastal defences or the environment?
(Mr Rooker) Well, nothing insofar as everything
we can identify that is food standards and food safety-related
goes to the Agency. The fact, if you like, that we have got research
in crops and that side of it, all right, we eat the crops and
you might call that food, but I do not.
658. I think a crop is a food, is it not?
(Mr Rooker) Well, the fact is that it is another
division and that side of it is not necessarily food standards
and safety in a way that we can make a discrete ring-fencing of
it. It is not possible. That which we can ring-fence for food
standards and safety, which is very substantial, will go to the
Agency. That which we cannot will remain with MAFF. That does
not mean to say that there will not be collaborative projects
or there will not be a spill-over from one to the other.
Chairman: You might
want to take that up in the adjournment as to whether crops are
food or not.
659. Can I stay briefly with the scope of
the work and then come on to the powers of the Secretary of State.
Last time you were here, I asked a question about relationships
with other departments, other than the Department of Health, in
particular on things that were important in food and, Tessa, you
said that it would be inconceivable that if a minister from the
Department of Social Security or DETR contacted the Agency for
some information they would be denied it. I think that is reasonable
and that tells us that a department, other than yours or indeed
MAFF, could contact the Agency, but could the Agency proffer advice?
I will give another example, not the sort I gave last time, but
another example. In relation to school meals, to what extent can
the Agency offer advice without being asked? The Department for
Education might be perfectly happy or perfectly oblivious about
something, but, for example, I had occasion some time ago to take
up an issue in my area which was to do with the delivery of vegetables
to schools twice a week and they were kept in water, prepared
vegetables, cut up and put in water and soaked from Monday to
Friday. Now, that seems to me to be quite an important issue.
If I, as an MP, or a teacher or in fact a school cook, who raised
this issue with me, or a parent approached the Agency and said,
"This goes on in my area. Can you do something?", because
it clearly affects the standard of the food because half of the
vitamins have gone into the water, to say nothing of things going
black and slimy, could the Agency then look at that and then say
to the Department for Education and Employment, "This is
not satisfactory. Will you please do something?"?
(Tessa Jowell) The answer to that is yes and I
think that clause 9 takes care of that point. In those circumstances,
I certainly hope that they would.
(Mr Rooker) It is like other Bills in that reading
the Bill does not tell you everything about it and you have got
to read the notes on clauses. If you look at the note on clause
9, you will see that the Agency has got a prime function of advising
the Government on food standards and safety, ie, any Secretary
of State. On the other hand, I would say, Audrey, that if it has
gone black and slimy, the local authority should have been called
in well before anyone went to the Agency because they are the
enforcement authority for food safety and standards.